The Best Sport? Cross Country

CROSS COUNTRY is the best sport offered at the high school level. No other sport comes close.

Why is cross country the best high school sport?

♦ XC is free of the commercialization of youth athletics. No travel teams. No combines. No showcases. No 7on7 leagues. No personal trainers promising to get kids to the next level. XC never has to compete with AAU.

♦ Unlike the ball sports, parents have NOT invested tons of money into their distance-running kids. Compare this to football, basketball, baseball, golf, soccer, tennis, volleyball, etc. Chasing a mythological scholarship is a disease in America.

♦ Because parents have not invested time and money into the sport of XC, they are usually hands-off and trusting of the coach. Talk to a football or basketball coach about parent interference. It’s worse than it’s ever been.

♦ XC kids buy in. Many XC kids are rejects of the ball-sport culture. Many are late-bloomers. For some, freshman XC is their first team-experience, their first-time with a smart, qualified coach.

♦ XC is the healthiest sport. In a world of obesity, XC runners stay lean. The adaptations (RBC count, stroke volume of the heart, ratio of capillaries to muscle fibers, etc) are valued measures of a healthy body. Concussions, broken bones, and knee surgeries are fairly non existent in XC.

♦ XC gets kids outdoors in all conditions. Humans evolved outdoors. We are not designed to live in the absence of wind and rain. We grow soft at constant temperatures of 69 degrees. Indoor living is a curse of modern life. (Read Go Wild)

♦ Compared to most other sports, internal conflicts are rare in XC. Playing time is not an issue. XC kids are much more homogenous than most other sports.

♦ Running is a life-long sport and most runners run (and compete) late into life. Compare that with football where most guys play their final game at age-17. I played my last game (as a QB) at age-16 after a terrible shoulder injury (eventually requiring surgery). I played basketball for the last time before I turned 40. My last baseball game, age-14. My only sport I have left at age-60 is running.

♦ The ball sports are all segregated. XC is a sport of boys and girls. They often train and travel together.

♦ XC athletes have pride… pride in doing things that most of their friends can’t imagine doing. Every time my sprinters watch 50 guys leave the field house for an hour run in the wind and snow, I make sure they appreciate “the toughest guys in the school”.

♦ There’s no misdirection in XC. Ball coaches are constantly trying to trip up or trick their opponents. It’s an obsession. Ball sport coaches don’t sleep at night or they sleep with a notepad on the nightstand. They celebrate their unhealthy lack of sleep. XC coaches study training, implement plans, then sleep like babies (until they wake up at 5:00 am for their morning run).

♦ XC coaches are friends with each other. Football is like war. Football coaches see each other as adversaries. Basketball too. Every ball sport is a zero-sum game. One team’s gains come at the other team’s expense. Very adversarial.

♦ No sport does team-building like XC. Camping trips. The mountains. Pasta dinners. Team banquets. Cookouts. Testimonials. Guest speakers.

What I’ve written is glowing praise for a sport that I’ve never coached. In high school, I never attended a cross country meet, ever. I think I’ve only been to Detweiller Park once. I had to look up the spelling! Hell, I didn’t have a distance coach for my first 26 years of coaching!

PNXC 2019

I asked my favorite distance coach, Andy Derks, to give this project a look.

Andy asked, “Is this your way of making nice with all the cross country coaches you ticked off the last few days?”

My response, “Yeah, kind of… but I also will have a part-two, stay tuned.”

Andy shared a text that he received today. “Happy New Year and God’s blessing to you and your family in 2020! Just thought of you as [my son] is out here at Plainfield North doing his sprints. Grinding it out. Every day. Thanks to your coaching and your culture.”

There’s a lot to unpack here.

♦ The kid is doing SPRINTS. Feed those cats!

♦ The kid is training on his own the morning of New Year’s Day, building his own house.

♦ The parent is NOT lobbying for playing time, not sucking up to the coach. There’s no “playing time” in XC, no one sitting on the bench. Instead, the parent feels a deep connection with Coach Derks and the PN XC program and is showing appreciation.

If you want to know more about how Coach Derks thrives alongside a sprint tyrant like me… check out the article below.

Feeding the Cats: A Distance Coach’s Perspective

I also asked the amazing John O’Malley to comment on my work.

John’s response was pure O’Malley.

Running makes you a better person. Every sport makes the same claim. Not saying they’re all wrong. All I ever wanted to do was play every sport every day. But here’s the science… Running grows intelligence, enhances brain connectivity, fights aging by lengthening telomeres and preventing dementia, improves sleep, improves mood, raises academic performance, develops executive functioning like planning, decision making, problem solving, emotional regulation.”

Is that all?

O’Malley added, “XC can be a cure for adolescence.”

I’m going on a long run.


Tony Holler, @pntrack,, 630-849-8294


Upcoming Events

Georgia GATFXCCA Coaches Clinic Jan 10-11, Atlanta, GA

Central Illinois Track Clinic Jan 17-18, Unity High School, Tolono, IL (only $50 pre-registered!) Special event… Coach Holler and distance coach, Andy Derks will co-present, “Cats vs Dogs”.

Minnesota Track Clinic January 24, Minneapolis, MN

TFC-Dallas January 25-26 (Amazing Line-Up!), Jesuit Prep, Dallas, TX… featured speakers: Vince Anderson (sprint guru) and Brian Kula (track coach and trainer of Christian McCaffrey), Steve Jones (112-7 at Kimberly HS, WI)

TFC-St. Louis February 7-8 (Maybe best-ever TFC lineup!) Festus H.S., Festus, MO… featured speakers: Derek Leonard (FB coach at Rochester, 45-2 playoff record in the last ten years!) and Kurt Hester (author of Rants of a Strength and Conditioning Madman)

TFC-11, Chicago June 2020 (June 5-6)

Showing 23 comments
  • Mike

    Best article I’ve read this year. It will take a lot in the coming 365 days to displace it.

    • Anthony Holler

      Thank you!

  • George

    Amen. Coach Bill Aris built a XC culture at Fayetteville-Manlius (NY) where the girls have won Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) 11 times and the boys place consistently in the top 10. All without recruiting, in a mid-size high school (2500 students). Exciting story, told by Marc Bloom in his new book Amazing Races. NXN is streamed live by Nike. It’s one of the year’s most watchable sports events for me, including the pre- and post-race interviews with the runners, parents, and coaches. Watch it and you’ll get the picture fast.

    • Anthony Holler

      I heard of Bill Aris for the first time yesterday. My distance coach, Andy Derks, told me it was a great book and I would like it.

  • Robert O'Rourke

    You have described my life. I have coached high school distance runners for 45 years. Every ball sport or wrestling coach who became one of my assistants fell in love with distance coaching and became successful a distance coach. I am still in touch with runners from my 1975 teams, boys and girls. At 76 I just won the 800m title at National Senior Games in June. Enjoy your active retirement!

    • Anthony Holler

      Thank you! 45 years and still going!

  • Philip

    I would agree with all the above.

    I have my 3rd kid doing cross-country next year and the camaraderie has led to further success in academics, belonging to a group, etc. The head coach goes overboard on the distance, but my kids have learned to listen to the assistant coaches first so as not to get injuries. But overall the benefits far outweigh any detriment. My kids are part of the 99% who won’t get scholarships for their running abilities so they are happier where they are at. This does say a lot for the sport. The couple of kids who do have that potential, have left the team to join the better-coached team across the city, but this is not a reflection of their former teammates, just b/c they want a better opportunity to compete in college. So no bitterness, except maybe from their former head coach. 🙂

    • Anthony Holler

      Sounds like you have witnessed both sides of the story.

  • ed pankowski

    Ran as captain of Sallies XC team in 60’s and loved it so much I ran many (22) marathons later in life. Highlights were my best time of 2:58:05 and ran Boston 4Xs ! I still run a little

    • Anthony Holler

      XC is a life-long sport.

    • Scott Christensen

      Great article Tony. Super on the mark points. Glad we had a chance to chat for awhile about life at the Colorado high school clinic last January over a beer. Looking forward to our paths crossing again. Scott C.

  • Robert Ayton

    Outstanding article. I plan to steal this and send a copy to each parent of the kids I coach.

    • Anthony Holler

      Great idea. I think the article, being written by an outsider, makes a powerful statement in support of XC.

  • Reply

    Quality articles is the crucial to interest the people too pay a visit the site, that’s what this site is

    • Anthony Holler

      Thanks Scott! Hope to see you soon!

  • John E Andersen

    I had the opportunity to serve as an assistant XC coach for six years “awhile back.” One of the benefits we shared with parents was that the XC teams ALWAYS had the highest “cumulative student-athlete GPA” of all the sports programs in our school district. Of course, driven people are drawn to long distance running, so it is an outcome that should be expected.

    • Anthony Holler

      I think it’s a little of both… driven, responsible people are attracted to XC… but also, running literally makes you smarter. My brain works best after a run. I’ve heard many runners say the same. Makes sense.

  • Maggie Kirkham

    Very kind words about the “dogs”, “who can’t get fast by running slow” and the “slow guys who lose”, quoting your “Feed the Cats: Data Driven Speed Training.. I agree with everything in the above article. Just wondering why the change in thought. Your “Feed the Cats articles have been derogative towards distance coaches and runners and honestly turned me off. I completely agree that to be a good sprinter you must sprint and train fast and quick. Your program was used by our sprint coaches and our 100/200 boys did well but our 400 runners were sub par—couldn’t maintain speed much beyond 250 m. Thank you for seeing the light about Cross Country runners and coaches. I agree. It is the best sport out there.

    • Anthony Holler

      Nothing has changed my mind. I’ve been authentic all along and shared it more than anyone I know. I’ve always been a promoter of XC and distance programs as long as they didn’t ruin sprinters. Your belief that sprinters trained to be fast can’t run fast in the 400 is wrong but that’s ok. I’ve coached 13 all-state 4×4 teams in past 21 years. Good luck to you. Glad you liked the article!

  • Randy Marks

    Great article and pretty much dime on with all the bullet points. Just finished my 55th year as coach of the local high school team and still look forward to each year. Coached girls for 20 years along with the boys so I know how tough girls can be as competitors. Just talking about this gets me thinking about next August already. Cross country is way more than a sport. To me it has a sacredness about it that all other sports lack.

    • Anthony Holler

      Agree! Sacred is a good word. I feel it every time I go on a good run. (There’s bad runs too! Ha.)

  • Albert

    As a former CrossCountry and Track runner your article was excellent in describing the difference in attitude between the ball sports and Cross Country. I can remember while doing a 3/4 mile warm up hearing football players complaining about having to run ten 50 yard sprints. They were suppose to be the tough ones in school. Today I participated in a sport of Race Walking that’s even more challenging than Cross Country and Track. Race Walking is very much misunderstood, as many have miss-stated the rules of the sport. Many times a walker will be accused of cheating because a high speed camera will catch the walker off the ground. The accusation is false as the rule states with the negative eye will judgements be made.

  • Matthew Waite

    Great points. You mention that XC fosters team building. True. This is necessary as XC is very much a team sport, but often considered an individual sport. In a cross-country race, each of the seven athletes needs to give it their all for the team. To do otherwise, you feel as though you are letting down your team.

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